Are your children still glued to the sofa or have the London Olympics inspired them to take up sport? Either way, it’s not too late for you to be an Olympic parent – if you can find the right sport for them, says Michael Donlevy. And we can help…
Watching the Games, you couldn’t help but notice that Great Britain was suddenly good at stuff we’re traditionally rubbish at – organising things, getting people from A to B and sport among them. As dad to a sports-mad 10-year-old, I also noticed how, every time another member of Team GB won gold, a camera was shoved into the face of at least one proud parent in the crowd to ask how they felt.
Would you like to join them? Well, if you act on the Olympic legacy we keep hearing about, you may be in with a chance. Getting your children to be more active is an end in itself, but you can use the latest scientific evidence to help pick a sport that, with a bit of practice and some coaching, your child may actually be good at.
How do we do that? Look at your child(ren). The first thing to note is their height. If your 12-year-old can look you in the eye, you could be a future Olympic parent. ‘Elite athletes are getting heavier and taller, and they are getting taller faster,’ says Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University in the US and author of Design In Nature. His research found that, over the past 100 years, elite swimmers have grown on average 4.5in, more than double that of the normal population (2in), while elite sprinters have shot up 6.4in. ‘The global trend is peanuts compared to the evolution of the very few who signify the sport,’ says Bejan.
‘Among athletes of the same height, their centre of gravity comes into play. Athletes of West African origin have a centre of gravity three per cent higher than in Europeans. That equals a 1.5 per cent speed advantage in running, but the same 1.5 per cent disadvantage in swimming. Some factors – body size and composition – can’t be changed.’
One Olympic ideal is sport for all. But again the playing field isn’t level, and it’s no coincidence that many of Team GB’s top performers went to private schools. Chris Hoy, for example, learned the basics of daily routine, discipline and hard work at George Watson’s College in Edinburgh. ‘State schools offer fewer opportunities than public schools,’ says Professor Alan Nevill, editor-in-chief of the Journal Of Sports Sciences at Wolverhampton University. ‘They have better equipment, facilities and access to sport. Plus the pupils usually have successful parents who instil motivation at a young age. These children have the right attitude.’
So what can we as parents do if we don’t have the genes or the cash? Giving your child siblings helps – just ask triathlon gold and bronze medallists Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee. ‘We’ve always been very competitive,’ says Jonny, the younger of the two. ‘We play a lot of table tennis in our garden at home and we’ve had some very serious matches. We’ve never finished a game of Monopoly because the one who’s losing always quits before the end.’ But it works both ways, in that they help each other through training and even races. ‘We have the same strengths so we complement each other when we work together. I’ve worked for him in races. I can feel disappointed if I sacrifice my race but it’s worth it if he wins.’
And the good news is that, in some sports, your kids can defy their genes. Helen Glover, the rower who, with Heather Stanning, won Team GB’s first gold of the Games, had to cheat to get past the height limit at a talent identification scheme in 2008. ‘I did kind of have to stand on tiptoes,’ she says. ‘I was half an inch too short but it worked.’ Determination can go a long way.
Taking it one step further, football legend Dennis Bergkamp once said ‘talent can be trained into a player’. ‘What he means is skill,’ says Bejan. ‘Skill can be taught and learned. Talent, or creativity, can’t. But we can encourage young minds to throw off inhibitions and free their creativity.’
And creativity is important in many sports. ‘We did particularly well in sports where the judging is subjective, such as boxing, equestrian and gymnastics,’ says Nevill. ‘The home crowd may have influenced the judges, but the performances may inspire a new generation who will be even better than the 2012 athletes.’
Just one last thing: you may want to talk to your child about it. I’m sure Victoria Pendleton’s dad is very proud of the three Olympic gold medals she has won. But is he as proud of the fact that she has endured a sometimes painful love/hate relationship with cycling since being dragged along to his amateur races as a child?
‘Some children share the dream of the parent,’ says Bejan. ‘And some can see the financial benefit.’ But others, as he puts it, ‘don’t have their own music to listen to and end up unhappy.’
Above all, the fact that your child may suddenly be showing a greater interest in sport is a good thing. It doesn’t mean you have to remortgage your house to buy a dressage horse just yet.
Eight factors that could indicate your child has medal potential
This guide identifies eight factors that are proven to dictate sporting ability or are qualities shared by this summer’s sporting successes. This delivers a series of tests parents can undertake to see where their kids might rank on a scale of likely success.
‘Elite athletes are getting heavier and taller, and they are getting taller faster,’ according to Adrian Bejan, professor of mechanical engineering at Duke University in the US and author of Design In Nature.
2. Date of birth
There’s a great deal of research that suggests the month in which your child is born will figure greatly in their chances of sporting success. When we’re young, eight to 12 months can equal a big difference in levels of maturation. For example, two children in the same year group at school can look very different if one is born on 15 September and the other in August. The result is that the bigger and stronger child gets picked for teams ahead of the smaller one, leading to increased quality of training, better coaching and more hours of practice.
‘State schools offer fewer opportunities than public schools,’ says Alan Nevill, editor-in-chief of the Journal Of Sports Sciences at Wolverhampton University. ‘They have better equipment, facilities and access to sport. Plus the pupils usually have successful parents who instil motivation at a young age. These children have the right attitude.’
4. Number of siblings
Giving your child siblings helps – just ask triathlon stars Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee. ‘We’ve always been very competitive,’ says Jonny, the younger of the two. ‘We play a lot of table tennis in our garden at home and we’ve had some very serious matches. We’ve never finished a game of Monopoly because the one who’s losing always quits before the end.’
5. Parental pushiness
Just one thing: you may want to talk to your child about it. I’m sure Victoria Pendleton’s dad is very proud of her achievements. But is he as proud of the fact that she has endured a sometimes painful love/hate relationship with cycling since being dragged along to his amateur races as a child? ‘Some children share the dream of the parent,’ says Bejan. ‘And some can see the financial benefit.’ But others, as he puts it, ‘don’t have their own music to listen to and end up unhappy.’
Rower Helen Glover had to cheat to get past the height limit at a talent identification scheme in 2008. ‘I did kind of have to stand on tiptoes,’ she says. ‘I was half an inch too short but it worked.’ Determination can go a long way.
We’ve all heard about the 10,000 rule and football legend Dennis Bergkamp once said, ‘Talent can be trained into a player’. ‘What he means is skill,’ says Bejan. ‘Skill can be taught and learned.’
‘Skill can be taught and learned. Talent, or creativity, can’t. But we can encourage young minds to throw off inhibitions and free their creativity,’ says Bejan.
Where does your child stand?
For over a decade now the government and major sporting bodies have worked together on talent identification projects that roll out with the sole aim of spotting ‘podium potential’ in young children across the country. This year’s Olympic Games in London were the first to see Great Britain cash in on these schemes, with 11 places on Team GB and even a medal that went some way to proving their effectiveness.
That medal came from rower Helen Glover, who won Team GB’s first gold of the games and was spotted through a programme founded by Sir Steve Redgrave in 2007 called Sporting Giants. Sporting Giants toured the country looking for tall and powerful men and women who could be fast-tracked into sports like rowing, volleyball and handball.
As you can imagine, a formula that could accurately detect Olympic potential in children from an early age would be extremely valuable and sought-after – we’d have governing bodies queuing round the block to get their hands on it. This test doesn’t claim to be the answer, but there are factors that can be looked at in our children to give us some idea of their sporting potential. Answer the questions below to see where your child stands on the path to podium success.
1. How does your child measure against the average height for his/her age? Get out the tape measure and score 1 point for every centimetre above the ‘mean’ height your child measures up at.
Age 5: 40–47 inches, mean: 110cm (44in)
Age 6: 43–50 inches, mean: 116cm (46in)
Age 7: 45–53 inches, mean: 121cm (48in)
Age 8: 47–55 inches, mean: 127cm (51in)
Age 9: 49–57 inches, mean: 132cm (53in)
Age 10: 51–59 inches, mean: 137cm (55in)
Age 11: 53–61 inches, mean: 143cm (57in)
Age 12: 54–64 inches, mean: 150cm (60in)
Age 13: 56–67 inches, mean: 156cm (62in)
Age 14: 57–70 inches, mean: 163cm (65in)
Age 15: 60–72 inches, mean: 169cm (68in)
Age 5: 40–47 inches, mean: 108cm (43in)
Age 6: 43–49 inches, mean: 115cm (46in)
Age 7: 45–52 inches, mean: 120cm (48in)
Age 8: 47–54 inches, mean: 125cm (50in)
Age 9: 49–56 inches, mean: 130cm (52in)
Age 10: 50–59 inches, mean: 138cm (55in)
Age 11: 52–62 inches, mean: 143cm (57in)
Age 12: 54–65 inches, mean: 150cm (60in)
Age 13 : 57–66 inches, mean: 155cm (62in)
Age 14: 58–67 inches, mean: 158cm (63in)
Age 15: 59–68 inches, mean: 158cm (63in)
2. The school year in this country runs from September to August, so score yourself 12 points if your child is born in September, 11 points for October, 10 points for November, all the way down to 1 point for an August birthday.
3. We know the impact that the school we send our children to will have on their childhood, but now we can see evidence of the impact it can have on their sporting chances too. Score yourself 5 points if your child attends a private school, and 2 points if not.
4. There are plenty of famous sporting siblings out there, from the Brownlees and the Williams sisters, to NFL stars Peyton and Eli Manning. The competitive nature that exists between them has undoubtedly had a positive impact on their success. In this test, one sibling equals 1 point, 2 for 2 points and 3 for 3 points. However, more than 3 siblings equal nothing, as the positive effect can be lost.
5. Parental pushiness is often talked about in the media alongside sporting success. This is likely due to the fact that athletes are becoming successful at earlier ages than ever before. With success so young, and stories like the Williams sisters and their relationship with their father its no surprise that the role parent’s can play is being placed under more scrutiny. Simply, parents can play a massive role in the direction their children take with sport and there is a reason that parents are usually the first one thanked in acceptance speeches and post race/match interviews. Score yourself 5 points if you’ve ever dreamed of seeing your daughter flying around a velodrome, dragged your son down to your local pool or spent countless hours researching local rowing clubs.
6 & 7. Determination and practice can both fall into the category of psychologically based factors that could play a role in how successful your child could be in the sporting world. This makes them very difficult to measure and the likelihood is that this accounts for a lot of the inaccuracy of current talent ID programmes. Even the tallest, strongest, and fastest children in the play ground wont be successful unless they are willing to put in countless hours of practice and work through set backs without giving up. Obviously this is very difficult to measure when we are dealing with children and young adults who are constantly changing in the way they look at the world and themselves.For the purpose of this test we have come up with a simple way to measure whether your child could possess these traits. If your child has picked up a skill like throwing, catching or kicking they will have certainly had to spend time practicing. Equally, they will have been unable to perform these skills from the outset, meaning they will have undoubtedly come across some form of failure and still kept going to succeed. 5 points is yours if they can perform one of these skills.
8. Creativity, like practice and determination, is another psychological trait. Although we can’t deny it could play a big role in sporting success, unfortunately we’re unable to gauge creativity levels. This may, in part, be down to the fact that whereas determination has a significantly more recognised definition, creativity has proved harder to define and therefore harder to measure.
Now add up your score…
0-21 points – It’s not looking good but you never know. There’s a reason talent ID initiatives don’t work every time. We all mature and develop at different rates and there are exceptions to every rule.
21–35 points – There’s definitely some potential. You’ve got some of the foundations that can lead to success, but something may be missing.
35+ points – Now we’re talking. There’s serious potential here and if your child is not already registered for the local cycling team or throwing themselves off a diving board… why not!?
This guide has been devised by James Osborn, head of training at freedom2train.com and yano.co.uk